I expect the final round of the Masters to be spectacular, because it’s almost impossible for it not to be. Put together a great field, drop it on the most iconic golf course in the world, throw in a green jacket for incentive and wait for some Sunday drama.
And, yet, for all of that, the mind does drift toward a certain someone, because it’s almost impossible for it not to. Tiger Woods isn’t playing in this year’s Masters due to terrible leg injuries caused by a single-car crash in February. But he could have taken the week off because of magnolia and dogwood allergies, and we’d still be talking about him. That’s because no athlete hovers over a sport more than Tiger hovers over golf. Still.
Why? The easy and tired explanation is that obsessed reporters and broadcasters know that his financial tide lifts all boats, including those of major media corporations. But it’s the viewing audience, not the media, that drives all the attention on Woods. TV ratings rise when he’s playing in a tournament, and they soar when he’s in contention.
It’s not me. It’s you.
OK, it’s all of us.
It is possible that media coverage has conditioned us to look in Tiger’s direction any time the conversation turns to golf. But the likelier explanation is that, at 45, he remains bigger than his sport. And that’s not necessarily a good thing, long term, for the game.
It’s easy to see why the fascination with Woods won’t go away. When he’s healthy — a huge question going forward — he can still be a great golfer. That was made obvious by his victory at the Masters two years ago. He might be the best golfer the game has ever seen, and the fact that many of his biggest moments on the course still seem fresh, even 20 years later, helps explain his staying power in the public’s imagination.
But the guy has been a living, breathing soap opera, and that has taken his fame and his sport to another level. He is known for his waywardness off the golf course almost as much as he’s known for his singular focus on it. He crashed a car in a 2009 incident and was arrested for a DUI in 2017. It’s hard to forget his bedraggled mug shot from the latter incident. The only thing missing was a Ridgemont High diploma. He went through 45 days of inpatient therapy in 2010 after more than a dozen women alleged that they had had affairs with him. He lost corporate sponsors because of it, but eventually won some back because he had gotten his life back on track and because corporations love money. Few celebrities generate money the way Woods does.
So the February car crash that might cost him his career, while stunning, was in keeping with the very public, very messy life he has led. He reportedly was going 40 mph above the speed limit and suffered multiple fractures to his lower right leg. We have more information about the crash than we care to have. I don’t really need to know that the fractured bones broke through his skin, but here I am, armed with that knowledge.
On Friday, the Masters went on without Tiger, but not really. A Los Angeles County sheriff’s report on the accident found its way into media reports the same day. It noted that when a sheriff’s deputy was interviewing Woods in an L.A. hospital the day of the crash, the disoriented golfer thought he was in Florida. The report also said that Woods’ blood pressure was too low after the crash for medical personnel to give him pain medication and that investigators found an empty, unlabeled pill bottle in a backpack at the scene. If this was, say, Louis Oosthuizen, nobody would care about the details.
That’s how golf rolls these days, how it has rolled for years. It’s waiting for the Next Big Thing to come along, but the Biggest Thing won’t go away.
One of the most popular and marketable players in golf, Rickie Fowler, has won five tournaments in a 12-year career and has never won a major. But, boy, can he get you a low mortgage rate.
One of the biggest stars on the PGA Tour is Bryson DeChambeau, who is fun to watch if you enjoy watching a longshoreman swing a driver. The irony is that Woods in his prime was so much longer off the tee than his competitors that tournaments tried to Tiger-proof their courses by adding more yards. Because he was so dominant, I couldn’t look away. I can with DeChambeau.
Maybe it has something to do with Tiger’s foibles. By the end of Sunday’s round, we’ll have listened to CBS’ broadcasters tell us what wonderful human beings all of the players are, that golf is a game of rules and gentlemen, and that Augusta National is the place where God, after looking through hundreds of real-estate listings, pointed his finger and said, “I see myself there when I retire in 20 years.’’ I’m sure that some of the players are as nice as Jim Nantz tells us they are. I’m also sure that some of them have the personality of a honey badger and the morals of a grifter.
But with the birds chirping in the background and Augusta’s sand traps looking as white as snow, we play along with the make-believe. With Tiger, there’s never any pretending. We know who and what he is. And what is he now? Missed.